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Breathing difficulty

Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea

Breathing difficulty may involve:

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Lungs
Emphysema

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Considerations

There is no standard definition for difficulty breathing. Some people feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they do not have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease but may never feel short of breath.

Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty in which you make a high-pitched sound when you breathe out.

Causes

Shortness of breath has many different causes. For example, heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body. If your brain, muscles, or other body organs do not get enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur.

Breathing difficulty may also be due to problems with the lungs, airways, or other health problems.

Problems with the lungs:

Problems with the airways leading to the lungs:

Problems with the heart:

Other causes:

Home Care

Sometimes, mild breathing difficulty may be normal and is not a cause for concern. A very stuffy nose is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when you do not exercise often, is another example.

If breathing difficulty is new or is getting worse, it may be due to a serious problem. Though many causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, call your health care provider for any breathing difficulty.

If you are being treated for a long-term problem with your lungs or heart, follow your provider's directions to help with that problem.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:

See your provider if any of the following occur with breathing difficulties:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The health care provider will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms:

Tests that may be ordered include:

If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive medicines to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.

If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need oxygen.

Related Information

Breathing difficulties - first aid
Wheezing
Hyperventilation
Breathing - slowed or stopped
Lung disease
Interstitial lung disease - adults - discharge
Using oxygen at home
Oxygen safety
How to breathe when you are short of breath
Traveling with breathing problems

References

Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 83.

Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 29.

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Review Date: 6/22/2015  

Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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